Freedom of expression is not under threat in Trinidad and Tobago. It simply does not currently subsist as a right upon which we can rely in the face of the state of public emergency. If something does not exist, it cannot be described as being threatened.
The real tragedy, though, is the extent to which a people who rely so heavily on the fruits of our collective and individual expression to establish our bona fides in the world are now prepared to ignore its absence. Almost everything that means anything to Trinidad and Tobago has been founded upon the renegade, pioneering, irreverent, creative genius of our people.
Yet, freedom of expression and the regulatory means to achieve its lawful derogation reside in the basket of current restrictions with precious little publicly-stated discomfort. In fact, there are those who are insisting on more active pursuit of their punitive application. No dissent, one partisan commentator went so far to remark, must be entertained.
The impact of the suspension of free expression has also not been a passive, benign threat, as has been suggested by some, but an active factor in the prevailing climate of awkward and unpracticed vulgar defiance, self-censorship, silence and undue restraint fuelled by fear.
It is simply not true to say that only the criminals are affected by the state of emergency and that “freedom” can be a possible outcome of a derogation of freedoms. This is crooked thinking and a misuse of metaphor. Such an assertion is dangerous political sleight of hand often witnessed in established autocracies.
Indeed, even the ruling coalition has been minded to close its own doors to online expression. Its Facebook, Twitter and listserv dispatches have been shut down on the grounds of possible transgression. Could it be an inducement for others to do likewise?
Lurking agents of suppression meanwhile dutifully share casual online banter and ole-talk for further action and voices of even the most remote flavour of dissent are cast in the dungeons alongside criminal suspects, dreaded trade union activists and the political opposition.
Suddenly, freedom of the press is viewed as eminently dispensable even by some in the press; as long as the curfew permits and advertising flow, I suppose. Who from among us, in this masochistic fantasy, dare fly a flag of freedom?
Freedom of expression is not remotely equivalent to Trini freeness and license. It is a foundation upon which modern societies erect democratic structures to ensure that laws bring justice, creativity brings solutions and dialogue brings action. Much of this is captured in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which asserts the application of such a right not only with respect to those who impart information and ideas, but also those who seek and receive it.
Free and unfettered dialogue is also important in building social consensus without which societies cannot go meaningfully forward in peace. But how many more from among us are there who are satisfied that free speech is acceptable only when it is their own clearly partisan speech?
This is nothing new. Short-sightedness and blinkered sycophancy are longstanding, enduring features of our political life. The situation would not have been tolerated by current proponents had the political balance been different.
None of this, by the way, has anything to do with the validity or invalidity of the current constitutional intervention – however unconvinced I remain about it. My advice from those far from the haze of the emergency is that this country may have a lot of explaining to do to its international partners regarding arbitrary use of emergency powers and the militarisation of civilian functions. Diplomatic good manners do not signify approval.
This also has nothing to do with the desirability of firm action to counteract extreme behaviour. I have heard no one attempt to defend the thugs, murderers and deviants who roam this land and no tears are to be shed by me for brutes and sub-humans who kill, rape and maim.
The problem is in the midst of the storm, independent spaces remain almost completely unoccupied – victimised by the black and white of political under-development and under-achievement. Witness the futility of debate on the emergency in parliament. We all knew the outcome and we all could have written the script for the proceedings in advance. Nobody listened to anybody else.
This is more than a crisis involving our rights and freedoms, I fear. It is a death by suicide.